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Ms. Mentor’s Impeccable Advice for Women in Academia,

by Emily Toth
Book Review by Ann Wehrle

January 2002

Ann Wehrle is a staff scientist at the Interferometry Science Center (JPL and Caltech) where she does
strategic planning for science for the Space Interferometry Mission. She leads the SIM Key Project
“Binary Black Holes, Accretion Disks, and Relativistic Jets: Photocenters of Nearby Active Galactic Nuclei and Quasars.”


THIS BOOK IS FUNNY, thought-provoking, practical, and wise in the ways of the
academic world. Most women who have borrowed my copy read it through in a single
gleeful sitting. Professor Emily Toth, disguised as “Ms. Mentor,” writes an advice
column (available on-line at The Chronicle for Higher Education’s website,
http://www.chronicle. com). The format is questionand- answer, drawn from six years
of enquiries, and backed up with twenty-five years of experience in academia. Topics include graduate
school, job hunting, conferences, first year of teaching, the struggle for tenure, and post-tenure, among
others. Examples include how to negotiate startup funding, how to find out what to ask for, and
getting agreements in writing from the Dean or department chair. Graduate students often eagerly
anticipate giving their first paper at a conference, but are baffled by how few senior people
attend the oral sessions. Ms. Mentor clues them in, “... the major purpose of academic
conferences is to network, gossip and conspire with one’s peers.” She solves academic dilemmas,
such as how and why a panel chair must alert speakers near the end of their allotted times and
when to cut them off. The hilarious conference scene illustrating “peacocking” will be recognizable
to many astronomers.

A perennial issue raised in women’s job books is how to dress professionally. Ms.
Mentor recommends elegant rather than earthy or ethnic, and excoriates miniskirts, gray banker
suits, and “little-girl dresses.” “Dress like the highest ranking female member of your institution”
(not your department!) is her pragmatic advice. And then there’s handling the illegal questions
asked by job interviewers – are you married and do you have children? Advice: the interviewers
hold all the winning cards; if you do want the job, answer the questions calmly.

Why buy this book? As a grad student, to learn what really goes on in the academic world. As a
job-hunter, to read her pithy advice on presenting yourself
and negotiating a good deal. As a tenure track faculty member,
to figure out where to put your energy (hint: do not serve on seven committees simultaneously).
As a professor, to learn Machiavellian techniques such as orchestrating a meeting. Ms.
Mentor reminds us that men learn how to self-promote, compete and
win as part of their socialization as boys. The question-and-answer format allows Ms. Mentor
to show by example how women can learn the game and play to win.

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